The Sleepy Garden: Putting Your Garden to Bed

“And all at once, summer collapsed into fall.” – Oscar Wilde

I like fall for many reasons. I like the half-off Halloween candies. I like pumpkin spice. I like warm sweaters and warm cups of tea. I enjoy firesides and cold nights in. I love the sound of the pesky geese heading south and the crunch of leaves underfoot.

But as a gardener … I don’t like fall.

I love spring with its promise of potential. I survive summer and its heat. And in winter, I have time to rest and plan for next year. But fall … I just can’t get behind it. It’s the end of a productive year, the end of harvest and the beginning of less enjoyable work.

Fall is the time for putting the garden to bed.

The first step to putting the garden to bed is to harvest everything you have left. This can be difficult if the veggies are still not ripe. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat hemming and hawing, deciding if I should cover the tomatoes or peppers in the hopes the last few fruits will ripen before Halloween, or if I should pick them now and pickle them. I’ve agonized over my beloved green beans: Should I pick for green beans or hope I can get one more crop in to save for seed? Should I save the zucchini or let the frost get it?

A flower is frozen, covered in a thick layer of ice.
You can see which route this gardener took …

The carrots and other root crops don’t care though. They will quite happily stay in the ground until next year if given the chance, and frost-touched carrots always taste sweeter anyway. To pick or not to pick, to pickle or puree, to freeze or can, or just to give up entirely – these questions come to mind in fall.

After you’ve squeezed out the last possible days of fall that you can, and your harvest is safely squirreled away (or left to the squirrels), it’s time to clean out the old plants. This is a difficult question as well.

There are many schools of thought on putting a garden to bed, and I’ll be honest, I can’t tell you which one will work for you, but let me give you a few basics.

Chop & Drop

Chop and drop is the first method of putting a garden to bed that I will mention. This is the idea that the only thing leaving the garden is the produce itself. The leaves, shoots and roots stay in.

You simply chop the plant as close to ground as you can (yes, you can leave the roots where they are if the plant won’t come back from them after winter), chop up the plant into smaller pieces, and drop it on the ground you planted them in the first place. Done! Simple, but it can be messy-looking to some. We don’t use this method in Highfield Discovery Garden at Glenwood Gardens for that reason, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work great at putting nutrients back into the ground! If you’re fine with a little mess, this is probably the simplest and easiest method to use to put a garden to bed.

Rip & Strip

The next method I call Rip and Strip. It’s simple, but will make you work a little bit more over the coming months. Plus, it requires a composter.

It goes as follows: Rip out everything and strip the beds down to the soil. Everything goes, roots included. Then place all the plant matter in the compost and turn and water the compost as needed.

In spring, you should have hopefully turned last year’s garden into beautiful compost to amend your garden with. It’s a little more labor-intensive in the long run, but it’s much less of an eyesore. This is the method we employ in Highfield Discovery Garden, but we add one more step.

Cover Crops

Cover crop in a field, most likely winter wheat.
Cover crop in a field, most likely winter wheat.

Repeat after me: Cover crops are your friend!

We plant cover crops in the garden here at Glenwood Gardens. Just what is a cover crop? I’m glad you asked! Cover crops are plants that you sow once you have cleared the garden, (or chopped and dropped it) that can survive the winter and snowfall.

We generally plant a mix of winter wheat, Austrian Field Peas and vetch. The peas and vetch produce nitrogen and store it, and the wheat acts as thick mat, preventing erosion and locking the soil in place. Come early spring, just simply dig in the crops and put all their hard work back into the soil. It’s kind of a delayed chop and drop, plus it’s some green out in the garden in the middle of winter to look forward to.

Now, I could spend hours recounting to you all the different nuances of each method and explain more methods to put a garden to bed, but I’ll leave you to do your own research. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m tired and want to go to bed myself and dream of spring again.

I never liked fall in the first place.

Allyson Ernst
Nature Interpreter, Glenwood Gardens